A school bus carries children on a road near Cortez in southwest Colorado. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

School shootings seemed to be forever in the headlines. There was only one counselor at the high school. And there were whispers about a student who had a panic attack in a school bathroom.

That’s what got a group of Colorado high school students in rural Chaffee County talking about teen stress two years ago — and gave them the idea to create a voucher that provides teens with free, confidential counseling.

Today, the “teen wellness vouchers” are available in the county seat of Salida and the town of Buena Vista to the north. They can be found in the county’s high schools, the post office, the library, the Boys & Girls Club, and Fun Street Family Arcade.

In a state with an alarming youth suicide rate and a persistent hunger for prevention strategies, the vouchers represent a student-driven effort to broaden access to mental health services. The idea behind the ubiquitous blue and green paper slips is to simplify the process of seeking help and whittle away the stigma that surrounds mental health.

The professionally designed vouchers, spearheaded by a group called the Extraordinary Teen Council, lead with catchphrase “for teens by teens” and conclude with the tagline, “We all need someone to talk to sometimes.” They entitle users to two free, one-hour counseling sessions with staff from Solvista Health, a local mental health center. In addition to dispensing with the usual slew of paperwork during the first two sessions, counselors can meet students at community locations if teens prefer.

Over the last year, 37 teens have used the vouchers. Originally, they were available to students 15 and up, but now are available to students 12 and up because of a recent state law lowering the age at which minors can receive outpatient psychotherapy without parental consent.

Read more at chalkbeat.org.

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat Colorado covering early childhood education. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and the Denver Post. She holds a master’s degree in education policy from the University...